Almost Midnight
Michael W. Cuneo
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Buy *Almost Midnight: An American Story of Murder and Redemption* online

Almost Midnight: An American Story of Murder and Redemption
Michael W. Cuneo
Broadway Books
352 pages
January 2004
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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Darrell Mease is in prison for life, but not forever. God is his lawyer, and he figures the Almighty will spring him one of these days, for sure. After all, he was saved from execution by the Pope and he's not even Catholic. With a miracle like that on your rap sheet, the sky's the limit.

Not bad for a guy who murdered three people - man, woman and crippled teenager - in a cold-blooded vicious manner that certainly begged the death penalty, according to a jury of his peers. But Darrell is a man with few peers.

Michael W Cuneo, author and professor, has gone as deep into the life and ethos of Darrell Mease as anyone should dare. He even got Darrell himself to proof parts of his book. He has a respectful relationship with the murderer, and he wants the world to understand Darrell as well as he does.

Mease grew up in the hard-scrabble Ozarks, before Branson brought a modicum of respectability to what had always been seen as a hillbilly enclave, where local heroes were likely to be legendary bank robbers or mountain men with long knives. Darrell is a kind of local hero. Brought up Pentecostal, he is still adored by his mother, Lexie, who sees him as God's instrument and who has spent hours on her knees praying for him. As a boy, Darrell was likeable and not much of a scholar, though he had smarts. He just loved to hunt and roam the woods, and he learned from his Daddy how to shoot and kill innocent critters.

Vietnam moved him up a gear in the killing game. He came back haunted by survivor's guilt, though no one's trying to make too much of that. Darrell had chances, like we all do, and he made a mess of two marriages and all attempts at gainful employment. He wasn't lazy, and he had his pride. But he blew a lot of good opportunities and wound up in a nasty vendetta scenario with a man named Lloyd.

Lloyd was a mixed bag, like Darrell. He dealt hard drugs, and those who hated him were as many as those who thought him a pretty nice fellow. He'd play Darrell along, promising him things and not delivering, and finally put a hit out on Darrell, who, it must be said, was hoping to share Lloyd's limelight as a bigtime drug empresario.

Darrell and the love of his life, Mary, left the Ozarks and traveled in a big crazy circle out West and back. Mary wanted to settle down, but Darrell was obsessed with the paranoid notion that Lloyd would somehow track him down. The only solution was to hit before he got hit. In the commission of this crime, he just had to knock off Lloyd's wife and his paraplegic grandson, who happened to be at the scene.

Darrell and Mary took off again, Bonnie and Clyde-like, living the outlaw life out West. They held hands and looked at sunsets, and fought hunger and despair while she worked as a waitress. When finally apprehended, they were sleeping in their car, their last possession of any value. Not exactly an enviable finish to a grubby, violent story.

Darrell had a conversion while awaiting trial. Even those who were meeting him for the first time commented on his placid demeanor. But he was convicted and slated for lethal injection, and that seemed to be that. A date was set.

On January 27, Darrell's death date, the Pope was going to visit Missouri, so the execution was postponed. It was well known that the Pope disapproved of capital punishment and wouldn't like a man being executed on his watch. Who'd have thought it? The Pope personally asked the Governor of the state, Mel Carnahan (who was killed shortly thereafter in a plane crash), to "have mercy on Mr. Mease." The Pope felt it would be unfair to stay Mease's death for a few weeks just because of his visit, and then snuff him once his temporary savior was back in the Vatican.

On such a feeble thread Darrell's life appended, and on Carnahan's decision he was granted a permanent stay, in prison, with no chance of parole.

But Darrell, and his mom, believe he'll walk free one day. That would make one hell of a sequel.

© 2004 by Barbara Bamberger Scott for Curled Up With a Good Book

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